Striving To Be Happy

Have you ever sat in one of those emotional retrospectives where everyone draws a happy or sad face depending on how they felt the sprint went, or a little graph to show how you felt during the sprint?

They can and do feel like BS, especially to programmers like myself who are introverted, would prefer to sit in a dark room all day coding rather than share their feelings, but there is some merit to measuring happiness during a sprint.

Now we have to do some clarification about what happiness is work wise. Its not playing around all day, browsing facebook or shooting each other with Nerf guns, its more when are you happy being productive. You know the feeling, when you are in the zone. Time seems to pass by without you noticing and at the end of the day, when its home time (you have to be reminded its home time as you are so focused) that you have a feeling that you have accomplished something. These days are as rare as hens teeth, but damn they feel good.

So what is the magical formula that brings us those days. According to Lean Thinking, it is when the following criteria are met.

  • A clear objective – In other words, you know exactly what you need to accomplish.
  • A need for concentration so intense, that no attention is left over to think about other things.
  • A lack of interruptions and distractions (This rules out the modern workplace 🙂
  • Clear and immediate feedback on the progress towards the objective. In other words, you have the feeling you are getting somewhere.
  • A sense of challenge. Not too much of a challenge. Your skills need to be just adequate enough to complete the task. Too hard and you get frustrated. Too easy and you get bored.

Jeff Sutherland, one of the co-creators of Scrum. In his book Scrum, The Art Of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time summarizes it to 3 points.

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery and
  • Purpose

This definition I like more. Short and Direct. So what are these?

Autonomy comes from having a certain level of control over how you do a task or more likely how you accomplish a goal. The more vague the goal, the more the person has control on how you accomplish the end result. The more detailed the task, the less choices the person has on how to accomplish. The more they feel a cog rather than a thinking person.

There was recently a scientific study that discussed the mortality rate of a person based on the level of control they had over their job.  The findings were that if you have low control, in a high demand job, you have a 15.4% increase in the chance of death compared to a low control, low demand job.

For a high control, high demand type job, there was a 34% decrease in the odds of death compared to high control, low demand job. So having more control and a little bit of stress is actually good for you.

Mastery is where we want to learn more. Get better. The struggle for perfection. It is what gives us the sense of challenge.
When we are in the zone, we are learning. We are trying to figure out that little puzzle, put all the pieces together. Once they are all together, we go ‘ahh’. We have mastered that problem, we have accomplished  something and that little snippet of knowledge is tucked away for next time. Not to mention the dopamine shot we get to activate the pleasure centers.

Finally there is purpose. This is what drives us to keep going. Without a purpose all our work feels like it is being done for nothing. That purpose needs to be perceived, for without the perception of purpose, it doesn’t matter how important the job is, it will have no meaning to the person carrying out the task.

So why is happiness important? Quite simply, a happy worker is a productive worker. A Happy worker is a more accomplished worker and a happy worker is a more healthy worker.

I’d like to say, for your next retrospective that you go through and do an emotional check. Rather than draw happy faces, discuss the above points and see what can be done to increase the likely hood of reaching them, or even if they are relevant.

Please let me know how you go in the comments.

One thought on “Striving To Be Happy”

  1. Very well written.

    I recently had a discussion my team on the similar point that is purpose and autonomy while working on a story and I wish I had read your article as it gives some more ideas on the same line as well as other points around it.

    Thank you,
    Harsh Raval

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